The Texas Longhorns held their eighth practice on Monday, their first since before spring break. With only 10 days left until the spring game on March 30th, spring practice is hitting that final stretch and it appears that may be increasing the intensity level.
Head coach Mack Brown notably called talk that Texas isn't as physical in practice as other schools a "farce" and a "myth" several weeks ago and the first open practice backed up those statements. Based on practice photos, the Monday session was equally physical -- the gallery leads with Kendall Sanders and Adrian Phillips going head-to-head in a one-on-one drill, with notably intense defensive backs coach Duane Akina urging them on.
Eh, actually Akina seems to be about that intense all the time.
Another picture shows Quandre Diggs and Jaxon Shipley having quite a skirmish, with Shipley's helmet nearly knocked off. Being the best requires the best to compete against the best in practice and it looks like Texas is spending a lot of time doing that this spring. It's hard to say how much of a change that is from the past, but it is heartening.
Practice reports from Inside Texas ($) and Hookem.com ($) confirm that practice was indeed conducted with a great deal of physical intensity. If the practice was in thud tempo, it looks like there was a lot of contact, as there are multiple pictures of defenders wrapping up offensive players.
One player who was involved in all that for the first time in several weeks is linebacker Jordan Hicks, who was extremely limited during the two open practices because of a hamstring issue. One picture showed Hicks in coverage against Bryant Jackson, when it appeared he was beat, while another showed him at linebacker in a team drill, working alongside middle linebacker Dalton Santos, who has received many of the first-team reps at the position over Steve Edmond.
How well Hicks can help manage and direct the linebackers is a key for the 2013 season and something to watch in the spring game, as well as whether Hicks can stay healthy until then and move well out there in 10 days.
The perception is increasingly becoming that Hicks is injury prone after suffering the groin/hip issue last fall that caused him to miss most of the season, multiple other leg injuries, and the broken foot that cost him most of another spring practice several years ago.
The upside for the Texas linebackers decreases significantly if Hicks once again struggles with injuries in the fall. On defense, he may be the single most important player for the 'Horns in 2013, but is he reliable at all from a physical standpoint, from a standpoint of being able to stay healthy? It seems that the answer is no right now.
Going back to Bryant Jackson and that picture, the discussion about the third wide receiver position has mostly revolved around the three sophomore receivers. With the future of Cayleb Jones now in serious jeopardy, Jackson becomes an even more important player and fans shouldn't sleep on him because he's one of those players who just seems to make plays.
He didn't receive a great deal of playing time last season, but was reliable with eight catches for 140 yards, at an impressive average of 17.5 yards per reception, an impressive number. On special teams, he also contributed with eight catches. The Sulphur Springs product was in danger of getting lost in the shuffle when he made the move to receiver to help out with numbers there, but looks close to emerging as a consistent target for David Ash and even showed off some serious shake at the first open practice when he made safety Adrian Colbert look bad coming downhill trying to stop Jackson on a screen pass that the receiver ended up taking for a significant gain after making Colbert miss.
Running back/wide receiver hybrid Daje Johnson has been working at slot receiver this spring in an effort to get him on the field with the base personnel grouping, whatever that ends up being, and one picture shows him making a grab after apparently beating Adrian Phillips in coverage. Johnson hasn't had the most consistent hands all the time, going back to high school, so all the reps that he gets in the receiving game are important, so seeing him apparently bring in a fingertip grab is not exactly a small thing, even if it is one snapshot into practice.
In another picture, it looks like Joe Bergeron may have been working as a blocking fullback. There haven't been any reports prior to this about Bergeron working as a blocking back, but the fact that Texas is clearly going to be using more two-back sets with Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray together, it would make tremendous sense to use Bergeron there, too, as the biggest and strongest of the three Texas backs.
Then there are the quarterbacks. From the report at Hookem.com, it seems that Ash had a strong day:
I'm told David Ash had one of, if not his best practice of the spring on Tuesday. Ash was said to be sharp and locked in as Tuesday was a day heavily focused on getting the ball down the field and forcing the issue with the big play.
In the live portions of practice Ash has yet to throw an interception this spring. One source said Carrington Byndom nearly got him on Tuesday but dropped the ball.
It's hard to feel as good about Ash not throwing interceptions as one could last spring, when that was perhaps the biggest point of emphasis for him after struggling so much in that regard as a freshman.
in fact, the takeaway from the open practices was that Ash seemed a little bit tentative at times, a little bit unwilling to take any chances, to fit the ball into smaller windows. It's a notable departure from Ash as a high school player, when he admittedly had something of a gunslinger mentality.
For Ash to continue to improve, the pendulum is going to need to swing back again towards Ash being willing to take some more chances. If the defenses struggles again, the offense will have to step up and make more plays. It will fall on the Belton product to do that and it may require taking some more calculated risks.
In other news, MB-TF also posted information about the spring game, which will start at 6:30 CT on Saturday, March 30th. There will be the normal pre-game activities with the Stadium Stampede as the players arrive two hours before the game, at which time the north end zone will open with some activities for kids and photo opportunities with Texas Cheer, Texas Pom, and Hook 'Em. The field will also be open for 30 minutes after the game for pictures.